What the Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan Tells Us about Syria

Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Wikimedia Commons / RIA Novosti archive, image #642790 / V. Kiselev / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Echoes of the Afghan-Soviet struggle have begun to re-emerge in Syria, challenging the Putin-Assad alliance and the future of Syrian governance. 

“If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many more years. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.” These words, spoken on March 10, 1992, through an overwhelmed translator, stand in time as the final plea of a man at the helm of a dying regime.

The speaker was Dr. Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, the former head of the state intelligence service, leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), and President of Afghanistan. He was also the last client of the Soviet Union, which provided direct military and monetary support to the PDPA government until the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 (and indirect support after).

Najibullah was widely considered a Soviet stooge. He had some initial successes in restoring his reputation among some Afghan civilians and won several military victories against the mujahedeen resistance as they struggled to convert their approach from guerrilla to conventional. By March 1992, none of that mattered. A loosely knit collection of mujahedeen factions surrounded Kabul, poised to crush the remains of the PDPA government.

On April 17, 1992, a palace coup preempted a formal transition of power, and Najibullah absconded to a UN compound in the city. Four years later, abandoned by a now-defunct superpower, he would be tortured, castrated, dragged through the streets, and hung from a traffic light by invading Taliban forces.

Today, echoes of the Afghan-Soviet struggle have begun to re-emerge in Syria, challenging the Putin-Assad alliance and the future of Syrian governance. The story of how hundreds of competing mujahedeen commanders united to defeat the Soviet-backed PDPA holds many lessons for those competing in the “New Great Game.” It may also hold the key for how the United States can gain back strategic leverage against its geopolitical foes, end the civil war, and avoid the chaos of post-Cold War Afghanistan. The lessons are simple:

• For the resistance: Leave politics at the door.

• For the United States: Be a broker, not a kingmaker.

• For the world: Stick around to deal with the spoilers and ensure the peace.

A Failed Attempt at Unity

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979, neighboring Pakistan became a major geopolitical player overnight. Its sudden popularity, while much needed due to a deteriorating economic and domestic political situation, was wrought with dangers. As with the lesser Sicilian cities in the Peloponnesian War, Pakistan had to choose between a near threat (the Soviet Union) and the long-term benefit of allying with a far power (the United States) on this new Cold War battleground. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan, would choose a path that supported the Afghan mujahedeen, and thus American political objectives, but to achieve its own ends. Zia was determined to gain influence over Kabul, in order to gain strategic depth and change the regional power balance against India. The fragmentation in Afghanistan along tribal, ethnic, and sectarian lines, however, prevented a unified military force from effectively confronting the Soviet-PDPA alliance.

To accomplish this, Pakistan used its intelligence service (the ISI) as puppet master in an unconventional war next door, using funds and materiel support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China. Much like the United States Congress uses the lever of appropriations to influence foreign policy, Pakistan and the ISI used distribution of funds to exert a measure of control over the direction of the war.

Through this funding and distribution network, the ISI created the “Alliance of Seven”—the seven recognized mujahedeen factions that maintained a political presence in either Peshawar or Quetta, and a military presence inside Afghanistan. Peshawar became a lighthouse, attracting all kinds of ideologies and motivations from across the Islamic world to the cause of the Afghans.

While the “Alliance of Seven” provided a mechanism to grow the war against the Soviets and the PDPA, it failed as a mechanism to bring about political change for three major reasons.

First, the alliance represented only a small portion of the Afghan people.

Second, the relationship between the ISI and the political parties were arrangements of convenience and created little military cooperation. Competing political agendas further hindered cooperation between and within parties.

Third, the Alliance of Seven were Sunni-dominated, and did not include eight other Shia resistance groups operating in Afghanistan.

In short, money, weapons, supplies, co-location, and even a common cause failed to bind these disparate groups into a cohesive force. Fighting between mujahedeen factions increased rapidly as resources were routed to competing leaders vying for position in a post-Soviet Afghanistan. Among the Afghan civilian population, resentment grew with the violence and destruction. The alliance disintegrated amid the power struggle.

Separating the Political and Military Conflict